“Don’t be sensitive, this isn’t a fight”
Sam Levinson, known as the creator of Euphoria (2019 -), took on the challenge of directing the American romantic drama Malcolm & Marie (2021) during the pandemic, allowing its constraints to affect the flexibility of his filmmaking, but not rule it completely.
Returning from the premiere of his new and highly praised film, director Malcolm Elliott (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) embark on a series of escalating rows and aching divulgences that threaten to not only shred their relationship, but destabilize their self-perceptions.
Though the script berates “jazzy” descriptions of films, the word seems like a perfect reflection of the melody of the piece. The central confrontation between Malcolm and Marie, broken up into chases and breaks that scream to life with all the spontaneity of jazz, is a medley that dictates the film’s pacing. The entire experience is stripped back, presenting a black and white canvas on which the only splatters of color appear in the form of musical notes and sharp-toothed lyrics.
By using music as a means of communication, Malcolm and Marie gains an ethereal quality, revealing our human inaptitude to convey emotion through words of our own choosing. And so, when crickets quite literally burst to life in between ballads of sullied love, a familiar sense of loneliness prevails.
The slow unfurling of the film’s problematic personalities casts a spotlight on human imperfection, showing how we cling to wilful ignorance and the pursuit of selfish desires in order to survive a battered ego. The verbal war that explodes across the screen is an uncomfortable thing to witness, much like watching the torturously prolonged death of a wounded animal. To avoid tagging the exchange as “authentically” painful – another term ridiculed in the film – we can simply call it brutally realistic.
Unlike “authenticity”, which carries with it a positive connotation, the script’s realism remains a neutral point. What it achieves, instead, is a plunge into the tacky mix that cements romantic relationships; searing passion, rampant jealousy (or lack thereof), friendship, insensitivity, hope, despair, laughter, weeping, lust, repulsion, betrayal, exhilaration and, finally, a broken heart. Above all, perhaps, it’s about the mind games that bind two people, the thinly-veiled manipulation that is meant to dissipate with the fervently emphasized words “I didn’t mean it”.
This examination of the cobweb-stuffed corners of a relationship presents itself in the form of a monologue, the pieces of which are spread out to fill the breaks during the ongoing match of whooshing expletives. The most terrifying aspect of this spectacle is how vicious love can be, tethering hearts to sinking ships. Once this realization has dawned on us, the urge to walk away kicks in like a defective self-preservation instinct. And yet, we continue watching, squirming in our seats the whole time. It’s safe to say that Malcolm & Marie is as appropriate a choice for Valentine’s Day as Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010).
The film’s most shocking – and grating – aspect is its discussion of art and identity. Both themes are presented as entities governed by rules and beliefs that are just as stifling as the threads keeping a relationship together. What pours out of these page-long tirades is anger, pure and blinding. Talk of race, egotism, wealth and privilege transforms Malcolm & Marie into a begrudginly political piece, subverting the very words Malcolm uses to ridicule our need to turn self-expression into a politically-charged sermon.
And yet, isn’t that the very freedom Malcom & Marie argues for? The right to express a deep-rooted frustration that might bore some and infuriate others? The film’s derisive references to selling out and relinquishing the right to creative expression underscore that very need. In this regard, the script, overwhelming at times, is a testament to just how subjective art truly is. The film begs to provoke people with its discussion of race and authenticity. It longs to poke and pinch because the true value of art lies in its ability to cause a reaction, yank on an emotion, squeeze out an interpretation, and affect a bystander’s perception of reality. And the film certainly succeeds in doing just that.